The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, standing at 208 feet, is the tallest in the United States. The lighthouse is painted in black and white spirals, with a red base. Its light can be seen for 20 miles, warning ships of the submerged sand bars where so many ships have foundered. The present lighthouse is the second of three that have been situated on the cape. The first was authorized by Congress in 1794 and completed ten years later, shining a weak beam out over the ocean. Shells from Union ships damaged the light in 1861, and retreating Confederate soldiers took the original lamp from this first lighthouse. The lamp was never found. The present structure, the second tower, was erected in 1869-1870 by the U.S. Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board became the Lighthouse Service, which is now part of the U.S. Coast Guard. A first-order Fresnel lens magnified a small oil wick flame at the tower’s top, which was lit for the first time on December 16, 1870. Vandals damaged the lens in the present structure when the Federal Government abandoned it in 1935. A third temporary structure was built of steel in 1936 and placed about two miles northeast in Buxton. The light from the temporary tower was moved to the present lighthouse on July 23, 1950, which put it back into operation. When reactivated, it was replaced by a rotating beacon–a double affair with 1000-watt lamps in each beacon–visible for 20 miles. However, it has been reported as being seen 51 miles at sea and 115 miles in the air. The ”Double Keeper’s Quarters” is used to house the ”Museum of the Sea” and the Buxton Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center offers and Eastern National bookstore and several bulletin board displays. The Museum is within the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Double Keepers Quarters. The two-floor museum contains exhibits on various aspects of history touching the Outer Banks, and some natural history display. A small audiovisual room provides for a variety of presentations.Most visitors visit both the Visitor Center and Museum during their visit to the adjacent Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. There is beach parking nearby, as well as the Buxton Woods Nature Trail.Ranger programs are scheduled during summer months and offered intermittantly, or as posted, the rest of the year.